Heavy Melville: Mastodon's Leviathan and the Popular Image of Moby-Dick
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Heavy Melville: Mastodon’s Leviathan and the Popular Image of Moby-Dick CRAIG BERNARDINI Hostos Community College, CUNY T he oft-repeated story behind Mastodon’s decision to adapt Moby-Dick has already precipitated into the stuff of heavy metal legend. On a 30hour plane odyssey from a European tour to a wedding in Hawai’i, the band’s drummer Brann Dailor read the novel cover to cover and decided, in the words of The New York Times’s Ben Ratliff, that it was “a metaphor for a small crew of manic, undershowered rock musicians on tour.”1 Upon his return, Dailor proselytized his fellow band members into producing a record about the novel. Leviathan was released on the Relapse label in August 2004, bearing cover art of whale and Pequod, and song titles like “I Am Ahab,” “Blood and Thunder,” and “Hearts Alive” (the latter two are drawn from Stubb’s whispered exhortations to his crew). The album debuted at number 139 on the Billboard chart and received the aforementioned glowing Times review. Over the last few years, Mastodon has climbed the rock-tour hierarchy to larger venues and opening slots for bands like Slayer and Tool. Blood Mountain, their 2006 followup to Leviathan, was named one of the top 50 albums of the year by Rolling Stone. For the student of literary history, there is something mildly ironic about a pop culture artifact achieving broad popular appeal by adapting a famously unpopular book. The tale of Melville’s professional demise is no less grandly mythical than that of Dailor’s literary infatuation: The “man who lived among the cannibals” grows disgusted with writing potboilers and, attempting to remake himself into the consummate artist, spends more than a year “in the grip of his masterpiece” before unleashing it on an unwelcoming establishment.2 The novel receives mixed reviews and sells poorly; within a few years, its author has retreated to magazine writing; he dies in obscurity four decades C  2009 The Authors Journal compilation C  2009 The Melville Society and Wiley Periodicals, Inc. 1 Ben Ratliff, “Hast Seen the New Metal Album?” New York Times (27 December 2004), E5. 2 Andrew Delbanco, Melville: His World and Work (New York: Knopf, 2005), 122. L E V I A T H A N A J O U R N A L O F M E L V I L L E S T U D I E S 27 C R A I G B E R N A R D I N I later. In sum, the popular author refuses to martyr himself on the altar of commerce, and is popularly crucified upon his own “botched” masterpiece. Of course, the Melville legend does not end here, for literary criticism has rewritten tragedy as triumph. The largely unread text of Melville’s time has been resuscitated as the still largely unread, but popularly ubiquitous, canonized image of the book. Contemporary interpreters adapt less Melville’s sublime failure than Moby-Dick’s popular image—and gain both prestige and popular appeal in the process. In an interview with the British magazine Rock Sound, Mastodon guitarist Bill Kelliher remarked that Dailor “saw it as a sign” when he found the band’s name in Melville’s phrase “salt-sea mastodon.”3 But Kelliher’s remark prompts the question: a sign for what? Reviews of the album written by fans suggest that Moby-Dick functions, like any other high-culture artifact, as a prestige label, and one particularly suited to heavy metal. Of all pop music genres, heavy metal has the most fraught relationship with high culture, elements of which it at once appropriates and rejects. With Leviathan, Mastodon announces its evolution from the status of an anti-elite, anti-popular sub-subcategory of heavy metal performers into an elite (and increasingly popular) “art metal” band by appropriating the text in which Melville himself overthrew commerce for art. But the prestige of Moby-Dick is not the generic prestige of high culture; it is the prestige of the sublime masterpiece, which functions to temper the threat of “selling out” to both the art elite and the mass market by invoking the masculine ideologies of...